Saturday, September 17, 2005


In this week's Montaigne essay, "On Anger", he cautions against taking rash actions against someone with whom you are angry. "No passion disturbs the soundness of our judgments as anger does," writes Montaigne. It is, therefore, imperative that we take a step back and cool our heels before we attack, take revenge or inflict a punishment. This is especially true when it comes to children. Montaigne is not an advocate of "spare the rod, spoil the child":

How many times I have been tempted, among other things, to make a dramatic intervention so as to avenge some little boys whom I saw being bruised, knocked about and flayed alive by some frenzied father or mother beside themselves with anger. You can see fire and rage flashing from their eyes--"they are carried away by burning wrath, like boulders wrenched free from the cliff crashing down the precipitous slope"--(according to Hippocrates the most dangerous of distempers are those which contort the face) as with shrill wounding voices, they scream at children who are often barely weaned. Children are crippled and knocked stupid by such batterings/
(Montaigne had an interesting view for the time, he believed that, as future citizens, children belonged to the State and it was injudicious to allow parents to educate and bring them up as they saw fit.) Punishments "judiciously weighed" are more acceptable and effective for the recipient. When we are angry, our judgment is clouded, "Faults seen through anger are like objects seen through mist: they appear larger." But just as we should not lash out in anger, we should not hide our anger either, "By hiding our choler we drive it into our bodies." This throws the humors all out of whack. Too much choler is a bad thing, it will eat out your insides. Montaigne would rather "make an exhibition" of his passions "than to brood over them" to his cost. He admits to getting angry, but says he tries to keep it short and normally uses only his tongue. These days there is medical proof that not expressing our anger, our choler, damages our bodies and minds. We have created numerous acceptable outlets from sports to therapy for venting our anger. Yet it seems to continue to increase. Road Rage used to be a rare occurrence, these days it is nearly impossible to drive even a short distance without someone cutting you off, tailgating you or making vigorous hand gestures in your direction. Simple disagreements escalate into full blown arguments with guns. Why are we so angry? Why do we take it out on one another? What ever happened to "using your anger" to make a difference for more than just yourself? To bringing about change in laws and society that benefit everyone by funneling your anger into a "cause"? Montaigne writes,
Aristotle says that choler sometimes serves virtue and valour as a weapon. That is most likely; nevertheless those who deny it have an amusing reply: it must be some new-fangled weapon; for we wield the other weapons: that one wields us; it is not our hand that guides it: it guides our hand; it gets a hold on us: not we on it.
Clearly anger is a double-edged sword. In the heat of the moment we are not in control. But the kind of anger that is deep, the kind that is awakened because of a violation of social justice--poverty, racism, war--that kind of anger can sometimes serve as a weapon. And history proves that it has been wielded successfully. I'm beginning to think that much of the anger bubbling up and exploding these days is a symptom of a deeper anger that people don't know what to do with. So we subvert it and destroy the body of our society instead. But as Montaigne indicates, we have a choice. Will we use the weapon of our anger against ourselves or will we use it to serve virtue and valour? Next week's Montaigne essay: "In Defence of Seneca and Plutarch"